American Food Trends by the Decade

An overlooked segment of American history has been the inattention to the diets of Americans, an aspect which shapes the lives of all citizens. From meatloaf to lots and lots of pineapple, here are some of the major food evolutions in 20th century America!

1920s: After World War I, many women who would have worked as maids, servants, or cooks joined the workforce in office jobs. This situation left housewives with the bulk of the responsibility for cooking and entertaining guests. Lighter meals with more fruits and vegetables thus became the norm, as they allowed housewives to prepare meals more efficiently. A salad recipe from the period lists iceberg lettuce, canned pineapple, cream cheese, guava jelly, white asparagus, pimientos, and French dressing as ingredients. As an alternative to fruit and vegetable salads, gelatin salads added variety to the American diet. Gelatin salads often contained savory foods such as green peppers and olives, fruits such as pineapple, and even grated American cheese and cream cheese.

1930s: Although this period encompasses the worst of the Great Depression, most Americans were not starving, but may have been slightly malnourished. To address the financial hardship many experienced, citizens began entertaining for Sunday night suppers, as opposed to eating out with their friends. The chafing dish, the waffle iron, and the toaster now earned prominent positions on the dinner table, with the hostess preparing the meal in front of her guests. Waffle ingredients ranged from cheese and tomato, to pineapple, to pea pulp. Women worried that an emphasis on dainty food would not appeal to their husbands, and a Miracle Whip advertisement utilized this concern, stating “men love the flavor—a combination of mayonnaise and boiled dressing.” Men also enjoyed the grilled cheese sandwich, then known as a “cheese dream,” which grew in popularity during this decade.

1940s: World War II had a major impact on the American diet, as the country implemented a ration service for the first time. Not only did rations limit American purchasing, but food shortages caused by the war also affected the average citizen. Herbs and spices, such as sage, thyme, paprika, and saffron had all but disappeared from the market, and spices like cinnamon and pepper were in short supply. These shortages exposed Americans to the tangible consequences of the war, even before the United States became involved. When the United States did become involved in 1941, Americans were warned that food shortages may occur. To adapt to ration points applied to meat, ground beef, which cost less ration points than cuts of meat such as steak, grew in popularity in the form of meatballs and meatloaf. After the war ended in 1945, Americans adapted a voracious appetite for meat. This, combined with the postwar economic boom, dramatically raised the cost of meat, which led to a nationwide boycott of butcher shops. The effect remains today in the enduring popularity of American meatloaf.

1950s: The postwar economic boom, in addition to the GI Bill, enabled many newly middle-class white American families to move to the suburbs. With their own backyards, American cuisine turned to the outdoor grill. In reference to charcoal grilling, a contemporary cookbook suggested that “it is primarily a man’s job and that a woman, if she’s smart, will keep it that way.” It continued that grilling allowed men to show they were capable of cooking, while women did the planning and preparation of the food, effectively giving men the credit for the work that women did in advance. Meat continued its popularity through this new method of cooking, and through the prevailing belief that an abundance of protein would promote weight loss. Accompanying the steaks at a backyard barbeque there would commonly be bean salad, and potatoes cooked in foil. A brief fad emerged where home cooks would boil potatoes wrapped in foil in rosin, then eat them, however the pine by-product was highly flammable and not widely sold.

1960s: As American wealth and comfort grew, the American diet slanted towards both the enjoyable and the convenient, in a trend that can be described as “instant gourmet.” Canned goods were celebrated, and even a dish as simple as chicken breasts with tarragon used canned gravy in its recipe. This trend was not without criticism. One critic suggested that the use of canned food was in preparation for life in a bomb shelter. Perhaps in response to American reliance on processed food, was the emergence of cooking great Julia Child. Through her show The French Chef, Child showed America how to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients, while reassuring the audience that any mistakes could be rectified. Her popularity also led to the prominence of dishes like chocolate mousse and coq au vin, as well as a general interest in French cuisine. In contrast to traditional French cooking was space-age adjacent trends, such as fondue, which was served in containers resembling satellites.

1970s: While French food dominated in the 1960s, and dishes like crepes and pâté increased in popularity, Italian and Greek cuisine became exceedingly popular in the 1970s. Pasta primavera, fettuccine alfredo, and moussaka all earned a place at the American dinner table. “Health foods”’ also became popular during this period, likely in connection to the lasting counterculture movement, and granola was a popular choice. Although mostly used as a yogurt topping and snack, the Granola Cookbook suggested it be incorporated in quiche Lorraine, eggs benedict, and fondue, which were all dishes with sustained popularity during this period.

1980s: With the rise of the Yuppie, quick meals and less attention to cooking dominated America during the 1980s. When Yuppies took the time to cook, it was elaborate. A trendy dish in the vein of rising California cuisine was corn soup and black bean soup, poured carefully so the soups would not mix, and topped with red pepper puree. Cajun food additionally rose to prominence during this period, likely due to Paul Prudhomme, the chef at Commander’s Palace. His signature dish, blackened redfish, spurred a blackened meat movement, and even led to the endangerment of the redfish. The last regional cuisine to increase in popularity was Southwestern cuisine, which benefited from the similar but earlier California cuisine. Ingredients such as beans, chiles, and squash became mainstays in the American pantry.

All information was sourced from Sylvia Lovegren's Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads.


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